a quirky look at London Life

Show of Hands @ Union Chapel 22:11:19

In my experience, A date with Show of Hands is always a pleasure. Why is that so? I suppose because it contains a strong, albeit unconscious element of wish-fulfilment. These guys know what makes a good show a great show. And if your wishes can be fulfilled on a dark and miserable London Friday night, after standing in a long queue for a long time (the pain of unallocated, sold out gigs), so much the better. We might not articulate these thoughts, but basically what we want is to relax, be moderately excited; we desire the full emotional range, finishing off with an opportunity to sing along to the familiar. We demand the musical brilliance we now take for granted with this outfit. And we want the element of surprise and the comfort of being included. We want the refreshment of reinvention too. We got it all. Like the musical equivalent of a wedding garter, strange as that simile must appear when referring to these sturdy oaks of folk. Again I speak metaphorically of much beloved West Country duo Knightley and Beer. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue neatly sums up the set list. Before the show was over to vanish into the mist of memory, we were awash with sensate pleasures. We got dazzling, prolonged fiddle playing by Beer throughout while Bodhran player (someone new) Cormac Byrne, given centre stage at the off? Never did a drumbeat sound so right. New blood in the band, fitting right in. An injection of Irish humour too, oh the young cheek of it. And then we have Knightley, frontman , songwriter, a different sort of grit and dazzle, with his gravel of a voice. Sending out sensitively attuned, emotive narratives as topical and universal as they are rooted in ‘west country life’ of the ‘then and now’. His newly penned maritime song ‘Lost’ (an instant favourite from the new album) about a missing sailor is historically accurate but the meaning is suitably layered to apply to a more general masculine despair.

The show felt reassuringly familiar to diehard fans yet was always a sophisticated ‘twist and mix’. Early in the first set, bassist Miranda Sykes stunned with her pure rendition of Sea Glass. I just cannot rid myself of the notion that a generous genie comes out of the bottle, when she sings, to change our lives, for the better, just for a while. The magic web of musicality was, as ever, expertly woven, magically displayed, apparently conjured from the air. Or the waters of the Tamar. I think this in spite of the salty earthiness and jolly, honest exchanges between the original duo. I had this strange thought halfway through ‘something old’, the terrific ‘The Galway Farmer’ . If Beer were to take his fiddle out into the unsuspecting streets of Islington, the Pied Piper of strings, with his extraordinary otherworldly command, would see the entire spellbound audience rise as one and follow him blindly. And yes he did sing ‘The Blind Fiddler’, ‘something borrowed’, an old American folk song totally suited to his voice and his virtuoso playing that stretched forever but still didn’t last long enough. SOH jokes about their older following and yes it’s true, (cue new song ‘Swift and Bold from new album Battlefield Dance Floor, one for the oldies, on new album) but there were plenty of youngers at this performance. Which is good for all concerned. SoH goes places where folk musicians do not normally go. For example, they can do ‘jolly’! They unconcernedly cross genres. They can rock the blues ( Beer) and roll with Cornish reggae (Dreckley, on the new album), have fun with a marriage of Bangra/Morris. New and blue. All at either lightning speed or quietening down to slow. Theirs is a subtle, carefully choreographed art of musical leaps, gambles, ambles. Decades of touring together, experience and trust, allowing for, nay insists on reinvention, boldness. Freshness. Vigour. Their output is prodigious. Opalescent. Glittering, Gritty. The True Gritterati of Folk. With an acceptable sprinkle of stardust as the holiday season begins, why not the Glitterati of folk? Standouts from the night? So many! But the cuatro guitar play from Beer and Knightley (the latter cleverly teamed up with the Byrne bodhran for ‘tunes’), the percussive opener and the thunderously applauded Knightley rendition of Cousin Jack – I could go on!

Still on tour, Birmingham next, finishing in Exeter on Dec 7. And if you can’t be there, consider buying the new album Battlefield Dance Floor, a studio album that should satisfy followers old and new with its piquant mix of light and dark. The cover alone is a treat.

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